Review: Wolverine: The Gehenna Stone Affair - Classics/Essentials trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

[Guest review by Doug Glassman]

I’m not a huge fan of Wolverine. The character himself is fairly interesting, but when he’s appearing in ten books simultaneously written by ten different writers of varying skill, he gets diluted [ditto Batman -- ed]. While Spider-Man often has the same problem, at least Spider-Man has a truly consistent characterization, a combination of humor, responsibility and the worst luck in the Marvel Universe. Wolverine . . . well, usually he’s just a gruff berserker. Occasionally, though, there are some writers who remember that Wolverine has an actual personality. While Wolverine isn’t a draw for me, the great Peter David is, which is why his 1989 "The Gehenna Affair" (as collected in Wolverine Classic Vol. 3 and Essential Wolverine Vol. 1, among other places) was so appealing to me.

The book finds Wolverine in his days as “Patch,” a disguise so ridiculous that one of Peter David’s first acts after taking over the Wolverine title is to reveal that everyone knows who he is. For those not in the know, Patch is simply Wolverine wearing an eye patch. It’s the equivalent of Batman’s Matches Malone identity (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne with a mustache and shades). As a character points out, nobody wanted to be the one to point out how obvious this was at the risk of getting stabbed. Wolverine does have an excuse for operating under this fake identity: at the time, the X-Men were believed dead. To sum it up briefly, 1988-1989 saw the expansion of the X-Men Universe into its famous ridiculous proportions. A crossover called “Fall of the Mutants” ended in the apparent sacrifice of the X-Men, who survived in the Australian Outback. As a result, this was one of the first occasions where Wolverine started appearing in more than one title regularly, giving his desire to have a second identity at least some credence.

As Patch, Wolverine uses the tiny nation of Madripoor as a place to relax and find more people to fight. Madripoor is one of Marvel’s great fake nations; it’s essentially a lawless version of Monaco, a safe haven for all sorts of outlaws, albeit charming outlaws. Madripoor’s seediness brings to mind the World War II-era Morocco of Casablanca, which was definitely David’s intent, since "The Gehenna Affair" is a big tribute to both that film and The Maltese Falcon. There’s a very 1940s pulp feeling to the entire story, with extensive plane chases, exotic locales and just a hint of betrayal. A car chase in San Francisco also has a nice homage to The French Connection.

I mentioned a little while ago that Wolverine often struggles to have his personality come out. He’s usually written as gruff and laconic, and while the latter is pretty much correct, many writers forget that Wolverine is actually the biggest smartass in the entire Marvel Universe. He has seen and done it all, with his lifespan extending with every retcon, and pretty much nothing fazes him anymore. A page rarely goes by without him making a funny remark or pointing out something bizarre, either in dialogue or in his narration boxes. Some of this is because Peter David is a funny writer, as anyone who has read Young Justice or his Star Trek or Sir Apropos of Nothing novels can attest to. However, I find that it’s a legitimate way to write Wolverine, especially when he starts making fun of his “the best there is at what I do” catch phrase.

Like any good Maltese Falcon homage, the plot is outwardly complex but fairly simple once all the details are out. A demon, Ba’al, wants to reassemble the Gehenna Stone to access great power. Complicating things are the insane brother of Wolverine’s pilot friend Archie and the effect that the Gehenna Stone fragments have on those around them: namely, they make you murderously possessive, similar to the One Ring. Also dropped into the middle of this is Jessica Drew, a.k.a. the former Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter was the black-suited Spider-Woman at the time). Despite being depowered, Jessica ends up being a great foil for Wolverine as the two superheroes play off of each other. Ba’al is a relatively standard demonic villain, although he does have a sense of honor and can pretend to be kind . . . up to a point. His henchmen are fantastic, however; they pretend to be vampires and argue constantly amongst themselves, reminiscent of the ninjas from The Tick: The Naked City.

The art team features pencils by the great John Buscema, with thick inks provided by Bill Sienkiewicz and a nice dark color palette from Mark Chiarello, Glynis Oliver and Gregory Wright. Essentially, this is an artistic dream team, and they created a moody, at times scratchy artistic atmosphere. Letterer Ken Bruzenak provides some angular lettering which at times seems scribbled. It can be occasionally hard to read, but I think it adds to the book’s overall mood. I personally prefer Wolverine in the blue and yellow costumes, but this was the “tiger stripe” (brown) era and they do make Wolverine look good.

"The Gehenna Stone" is an oddity in the Wolverine bibliography, but if you can find a copy of Essential Wolverine, it's well worth seeking out, especially if you want to see Wolverine do more than just stabbing people.

Coming up, the Collected Editions review of Brightest Day Vol. 2, and marking the end of the DC Universe as we know it!
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